Nov. 19, 2020 | Blanka Melania Ciężka

Edward Hartwig: The Aesthetic of Construction

Warsaw under construction and technical infrastructure elements through the lens of Edward Hartwig

In the works of Edward Hartwig, the city is a live, diversified space: subject to constant change. Choosing themes for his images gave the artist opportunities to apply all sorts of approaches. Later, these selected themes would receive various stylistic treatments. 

Other than the images revealing a pictorial sentiment of the city through symmetrical compositions and soft blending, Hartwig offered views of monuments employing dramatic contrasting, and minimalist, almost abstract, views of the modern urban substance. In a way, this eclecticism on its own conveys the dynamism of the city. However, numerous photographs documenting construction works, the insides of factories, the city’s technological infrastructure, industrial machinery, or the steel components of city bridges create the most evocative image of the city as a reviving metropolis in full swing. The artistically consistent language of form used to capture these subjects is as remarkable as the fact that the images are often more of a visual metaphor than a documentary assignment.

The Aesthetic of Construction
A large number of photographs showing the city in Edward Hartwig’s oeuvre, significantly marginalize it or they do not include the city at all. The pictures most suggestive of Warsaw being an industrial organism include passageways, stone blocks, scaffolding systems, and metal structures. The frames seem to be compositionally premeditated by the artist photographer. The dynamic angles, foreshortenings, or low-angle shots not only emphasize the constructional panache and grandeur of city building, but indeed they amplify the measures used.

By opting for relevant stylistic approaches, the artist would assign a pivotal role to the industrial and technical components in his photographs (AN 4015/1/H). In works of a more classic composition, Hartwig emphasized the symmetry of structure by using the gradation of gray (AN 4014/H). The metal spans of the Poniatowski Bridge, where the Solec tram depot used to be, are an aesthetic commentary on the structural solution, underscoring its raw beauty (AN 4914/H).

Industrial Fascinations
Due to the subject matter and the formal language, the photographs of majestic building structures evoke works from the early 1900s and avant-garde ventures stemming from the fascination with industrial achievements. Unlike other artists of the early decades of the 20th century, Hartwig chose not to document the city at the time of changes related to the rapid industrialization of agricultural regions. He portrayed a post-war city, rising from the devastation and dynamically changing its visual identity. Whether intuitively or with awareness, Hartwig replicated the fascination with ‘Metropolis, Mass, Machine’.

All the same, Hartwig’s photographs documenting the reconstruction of Warsaw coincided with the age of industrialization in Poland. The technology of concrete slabs and cranes began to universally supplant hod carriers. The press at that time tended to revere mechanization, and the surviving construction reports reveal that construction equipment maintenance was valued. 

On the one hand, photographs glorifying industrial progress and the continuous development of the urban fabric can be perceived as visual metaphors for the futuristic attitude of looking forward. On the other hand, the bold stylistic approaches unveiling the city as an aggressive and space-consuming entity may be interpreted through the prism of the negative effects of urban expansion.  

Author: Blanka Melania Ciężka

Hartwig, E. (1960). Fotografika. Arkady.
Jankowski, S. (Ed.). (1955) MDM Marszałkowska 1730–1954. Czytelnik. 
Priem, K., Herman, F. (2019). Fabricating Modern Societies: Education, Bodies and Minds in the Age of Steel. Brill.
Zieliński, F. (2007). Szata ideologiczna miasta – architektura i strój. Uniwersytet A. Mickiewicza.